A gentle blush creeps across chef Esther Choi’s cheeks as she takes her second bite of spicy tteokbokki at a restaurant in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. She remains mostly unfazed though, on this first episode of First We Feast’s new YouTube series “Heat Eaters.”
Choi continues to scoop up more of the saucy deliciousness with her chopsticks while explaining to two friends the depth of the chili-based sauce used to coat the stir-fried rice cakes. The friends begin to sweat visibly. Choi fans her face. It’s too late now. They’ve all been seduced.
Choi is your fearless guide on this thoughtful spinoff of “Hot Ones,” where we’re taken on a lip-searing flavor crawl through a different cultural enclave in every episode. She begins, of course, with the cuisine she knows intimately.
While Choi is now at the precipice of what I like to affectionately call a gochujang-glazed empire, she started off helping out in her family’s kitchen as a kid. “I started young, eating spicy foods at like 4 or 5 years old,” Choi tells me, as we sip smoothies at a cafe back in New York. “I grew up making kimchi with my grandmother. For little kids, that’s spicy. So it’s something that was kind of built in.”
She opened her first restaurant, Mŏkbar, in Brooklyn in 2014 and has been building from there. Eating at one of her restaurants is a transcendent experience, especially if you grew up embracing bold flavors like I did. I often daydream about the small bowls of kimchi that arrive at the table — daikon, cucumber and the classic napa cabbage — unabashedly glistening in a briney melange of spices. Each bite yields flavors that unfold second by second, underscored by a type of heat that unites every note of sweetness, tartness and umami.
“Risk takers,” Choi says, when I ask her if there’s a “type” of person who loves spicy food. “It’s people who have that free spirit or are willing to try different things. I think you have to be a little fearless and kind of open your mind to it — and your body just kind of adjusts.”
I get what Choi means here, but her words resonate on a deeper level. There’s something both beautiful and poignant about this fellow child of immigrants talking to me about taking risks and being brave. I flash back to my family’s little kitchen in New Jersey, where savory dinners of daal and rice were emphasized by glorious blobs of spicy mango achaar — the Indian version of kimchi, perhaps. My parents, tired from work and cooking and creating a world for my little brother and me that would allow us to dream bigger than they ever could, taught me how to love heat. But they also gave me a fearless heart and the taste for adventure.
And so, while “Heat Eaters” is the fun, sweet cousin of the revolutionary “Hot Ones,” it occupies a different space. It’s an exploration of culture, customs and how what we eat is inevitably a reflection of who we are. Each episode, Choi tells me, uses spicy food as a vehicle through which we learn more about communities that might not be familiar to us. “I’m going to explore as many cultures as possible and as many spices as possible on this show,” she says. “This way, you’re just automatically learning about the culture even if that wasn’t the plan. We don’t want to force it on people. That’s not me and it’s not a stuffy show.”
How could it be? “Hot Ones” viewers know from years of devouring the show that watching people squirm and sweat from consuming spicy food while trying to carry on a conversation is hilarious and somehow relatable. Plus, there’s an undeniable vulnerability to it. “It’s the bond that’s created by two people experiencing spicy food together,” she says. “That emotion is so real on camera because we’re actually eating and experiencing it together — and dying together. And I do think it breaks the ice.”
Spices break barriers, people. The man wouldn’t have stumbled upon what’s now American soil if spices weren’t essential to humanity. But that’s a cultural story for another time.
Ultimately, the appeal of “Heat Eaters” lies in Choi’s authentic reverence for food — and experiences, moments and people — that makes us feel especially alive. And she wants us all to participate. “Start mild. Or start where you can start,” she says to any chili newbies who want to start adding some heat to their plates. “Don’t try to get aggressive, because it’s going to turn you off to cooking or eating more spicy food. That’s not what it’s about — spices bring out all the other elements of the dish. Know what your body can tolerate and go slow.”
This is sage advice, but anyone who watches the show will be tempted to get a little brave. And stomach lining be damned, I want that for all of us.
“Heat Eaters” is produced by First We Feast, which shares a parent company, BuzzFeed Inc., with HuffPost.